The welfare system as a platform
Despite the effectiveness of DWP’s digitisation effort, Universal Credit and the wider welfare system remain a stubbornly closed system. Third parties find it hard to support claimants, claimants must interact with the digital account on DWP’s terms. The approach to data sharing within government creates friction and errors.
By adopting a Government as a Platform approach, DWP could improve integration with other parts of government and empower civil society organisations to offer new services that help support claimants in new ways. Government as a Platform is the approach of reorganising the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets. These shared capabilities can be used by government and third parties to offer services, and ensure that sensitive data is accessed and managed appropriately. In the context of Universal Credit, there are three areas that this approach could help:
- new ways to delegate access to support organisations that go beyond access to the digital account
- providing standardised ways for claimants to provide data from external sources (such as job search websites or childcare providers)
- changing how different parts of government integrate and share data about claimants
Just as the widespread use of advances have chipped away at the idea of Universal Credit mirroring the world of work, the development of systems for landlords and delegation have begun to replace the concept of a digital account as the channel the department would use to interact with the claimant. The idea of third parties helping administer a claimant’s account is now firmly part of the service design of Universal Credit. However, today delegated access is all or nothing - the entirety of a claimant’s account is shared, and done very much on DWP’s terms. While DWP should continue to develop these systems, it should go further and make delegation more fine-grained, allowing claimants to delegate access to their accounts for fixed periods and purposes - for example, sharing only elements from their journal that relate to a sanction appeal.
In addition, support organisations should be able to develop their own services to support claimants where they identify needs that DWP has not recognised or is unable to fulfil. Much as today Citizens Advice provide written guidance on how to apply for Universal Credit, in the future they could provide complementary digital services. There are obvious risks with opening up the data held against Universal Credit accounts, and appropriate safeguards and checks would need to be put in place. However, it is achievable and there are opportunities to learn from the interoperability and security standards behind efforts such as Open Banking to enable it to be done safely.1
Civil society will need to adapt too. To date, welfare rights activists have largely failed to look for the opportunities that digital accounts and platforms could offer to their advocacy and service delivery. Digital has mostly been seen as part of the problem, rather than a means to address and achieve civil society objectives. As more public and private services move online, the role of charities and support organisations will be to build their own services that overlap and complement with these offerings.
New standards for providing data to DWP
As noted earlier, today the administrative burden of reporting changes to a claimant’s circumstances falls with claimants, and there may be opportunities to automate the provision of verifiable proofs to DWP, from banks or childcare providers. Rather than giving DWP access to more data, the department should set standards that provide a way for third parties to submit proofs. This would need to proceed with caution and ethical oversight for DWP to build up the necessary trust from the public.
One area where the risks may be lower is how claimants prove they are meeting requirements to search for work. The 35-hour work search requirement is based on a world view where looking for work is and should be a time-consuming activity. Automation means this may soon change. While the political implications of automation and work are widely discussed, the implications of automation on searching for work are not. DWP needs to consider how the 35-hour policy would work in a world where searching and applying for jobs becomes semi-automated.2 3 One approach would be making it easier to submit data from third-party job search services directly to the journal. More generally, there should be multiple ways of adding evidence to the journal, for example allowing claimants to send in a photo of a job application they have completed and applied for by text message, email or upload.
Data access, not data sharing
Finally, there are many areas where DWP should re-examine how its systems integrate with the rest of government. It should look for opportunities to break down silos within government, and to replace the liberal sharing of data with an ‘API first approach’, where data is accessed from definitive data sources.
The simplest area to address is the mechanism for claimants to prove that they are in receipt of Universal Credit (for example, if they need to claim free school meals). Rather than expecting claimants to print out a copy of their statement, claimants could give consent for this information to be shared via an API. This would follow the approach of the government’s View or share your driving licence information service which gives drivers a code they can use to prove they have a valid licence, without sharing all the data about themselves.4 This principle of directly accessing facts, via APIs, with consent, rather than sharing or duplicating the underlying data, should also be explored in relation to how DWP works with third party providers of the Work and Health Programme. DWP should also explore the use of digital wallets on the iOS and Android platforms for storing a digital proof that someone is in receipt of Universal Credit.
A less simple area to address is the use of earnings data from RTI. RTI represents a classic example of the problems that arise when, what should be a cross-government capability, is developed within a departmental silo. Because RTI was developed to meet the business needs of HMRC, DWP ended up creating a duplicate of the dataset with some additional information mixed in. And because data is copied at fixed times so that at any given time, DWP’s copy will only be accurate four times a day. The dispute process falls between two government departments, and claimants are left to deal with the impact of mistakes while this process plays out.
RTI should be reimagined as a cross-government platform, independent from HMRC and DWP, and with product management that is empowered to meet the needs of users across government, not just one department. The same set of APIs should be used to calculate Universal Credit as are used to display earnings information in HMRC’s Tax Account. It should be designed with appropriate access controls so that only the data that is strictly necessary for a given task is accessed. There should also be a single, unified appeals process, and this should be accessible from within multiple government services.
The last area that should be considered as part of a platform approach is jobcentres themselves. As government digitises more of its services, physical locations on the high street to deliver the non-digital elements of a service will become even more important. Rather than closing jobcentres, government should look to make them a shared capability for the whole of government.
Open Banking Limited, “What is Open Banking?”, Open Banking website, https://www.openbanking.org.uk/customers/what-is-open-banking/, retrieved 16th January 2020 ↩
“Open banking”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_banking#United_Kingdom, retrieved 16th January 2020 ↩
Richard Pope, “Google Jobs will break 90 years of welfare policy - here’s what the policy response should be”,Richard Pope’s blog, 21st May 2017, https://blog.memespring.co.uk/2017/05/21/google-jobs-will-break-90-years-of-welfare-policy-heres-what-the-policy-response-should-be/ ↩
HM Government, “View or share your driving licence information”, GOV.UK, , https://www.gov.uk/view-driving-licence ↩